Exposed: Dying fish and 'gunge-filled' rivers as pollution soars to dangerous levels

Dangerous levels of harmful chemicals are polluting rivers and streams across the Midlands, an ITV News Central investigation has revealed - with some Midlands rivers choking on phosphate levels up to 50 times higher than safe limits.

Using specialist measuring and detection equipment, we've discovered consistently high readings of the damaging substance, which experts say is already having a devastating impact on wildlife.

International conservation charity WWF called our findings “profoundly worrying”.

And campaigners have accused the Environment Agency of failing in its duty to protect natural waterways, with government department Defra also coming under fire.

The River Soar near Loughborough had phosphate levels 50 times higher than safe limits. Credit: ITV News Central

“If we don’t resolve those issues, the health of our rivers certainly won’t get better, and may get worse,” David Tickner, chief advisor on freshwater conservation at WWF-UK, told us.

"It’s a real problem, and there hasn’t been enough action from the government for, I would say, decades.”

“In my view, the Environment Agency is not fit for purpose right now - and Defra is just ignoring the problem,” angler Glyn Marshall told us.

He is the chairman of the Worcester Angling Society, as well as coordinating the Severn Fisheries Group - and he said members have noticed a significant change in the cleanliness of the water, and the impact that has had on fish.

It’s a story being told on rivers across the Midlands.

Brian Hull, chairman of the Loughborough Soar Angling Society, said he too was “very worried” about the health of the river.

“There’s a decline in the number of fish compared to say 20, 30 years ago,” he said. “And there’s a decline in the quality of fish, in terms of how many reach maturity. We think it’s maybe due to sewage entering the river and the chemicals that brings with it.”

According to the findings of our investigation, their concerns are well-founded.

Over the course of three days in April, we took water samples from 10 locations along seven different rivers across the Midlands, sampling each spot twice to ensure accuracy.

Experts recommend phosphate levels don’t exceed 0.03 parts per million (ppm), with the threshold of 0.05ppm considered the point at which serious damage such as eutrophication can begin.

We found only two locations where phosphate levels fell within those limits.

Our findings in full, from best to worst:

  • River Severn, Shrewsbury - 0.01 / 0.01

  • River Avon, Stratford-upon-Avon - 0.04 / 0.02

  • River Lugg, Leominster - 0.11 / 0.10

  • River Trent, Nottingham - 0.28 / 0.19

  • River Severn, Worcester - 0.29 / 0.31

  • River Derwent, Derby - 0.30 / 0.35

  • River Wye, Hereford - 0.35 / 0.33

  • River Trent, Burton-upon-Trent - 0.73 / 0.74

  • River Soar, Aylestone, Leicester - 0.84 / 1.00

  • River Soar, Zouch (near Loughborough) - 1.13 / 1.46

What’s more, conservation and environmental experts have told us that excessively high levels of phosphates in rivers have been known about for years.

WWF-UK’s David Tickner added: “We and others including the government have known about these issues for quite a long time - but that doesn’t mean they’re not deeply worrying. 

The problem with phosphates is the way it stimulates plant growth - including algae.

Ruth Needham, senior catchment manager at the Trent Rivers Trust, said it affects the very chemistry of the water.

“The extra plant growth causes algal blooms,” she explained.

“It causes shading across the water course, it requires a lot more oxygen in the water course, it has big implications for the water chemistry in the river which has big implications for the other wildlife.”

Phosphate levels are linked to both domestic sewage and run-off from farmers' fields.

It’s down to the Environment Agency to monitor levels, and take action where breaches have been found.

“In 1995 they were set up with a duty to protect and enhance the environment, including the freshwater environment. Arguably, they haven’t done that,” Guy Linley-Adams, from the Salmon & Trout Conservation charity, said.

“The rivers have got worse in locations, where particularly phosphates have become a real problem recently. 

“So the Environment Agency needs to look at themselves and say ‘we are not delivering on our principle function of protecting and enhancing the freshwater environment’. The answer is with them - they’ve got to step up to the plate.”  

International conservation charity WWF called our findings “profoundly worrying” Credit: ITV News Central

The Environment Agency declined to be interviewed about the phosphate problem, but instead sent a statement.

“Over the last twenty-five years there has been huge progress in enhancing the water environment but there is more to do and ongoing work needed,” it read. 

“A major challenge is how to achieve significant reductions in diffuse water pollution, which includes phosphates. Sources of this include pollution that comes from agriculture, roads and urban run-off.  We are working collaboratively with a range of stakeholders and partners to address these concerns and reduce these, and other, sources of pollution.”

The Environment Agency say they are in talks to develop a ‘citizen science’ monitoring scheme, and in some problem areas - such as along the Wye through Herefordshire - have employed drones to target where pollution is coming from.

But campaigners say whatever action is being taken either isn’t enough - or isn’t working fast enough.

“At the moment, the angling fraternity are frightened to death about the future of our rivers,” Glyn Marshall added. 

“I have two grandchildren - if things carry on as they are, there’s going to be no opportunity for them to follow old grandad and do a bit of fishing. Because they’ll all have died off.”

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